Smilin’ Joe and the Janesville Kid

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Reviews are mixed on the “winner” of Thursday night’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan – predictably, reactions are split along party and ideological lines – and we won’t fully know what effect it had on the polls, if any, for a few days.

But from a purely strategic point of view, Biden came out ahead by doing what he had to do – reestablishing some credibility for the Barack Obama White House and defibrillating Democrats and progressives who a week ago lay prostrate after the president’s less-than-stellar performance during his first encounter with Mitt Romney.

As Benjy Sarlin wrote at the website Talking Points Memo, shortly after the conclusion of the Biden-Ryan vice presidential debate:

“Before the Obama campaign could steal away Mitt Romney’s supporters or lock down undecideds, it had to reassure its own supporters after last week’s uninspiring debate performance from President Obama. Judging from early reactions to the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden succeeded with flying colors on that count, garnering strong reviews from the same left-leaning pundits who rushed to decry/a> the president’s first debate as a demoralizing debacle…”

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Biden came out swinging, taking a combative stance and alternating it with an Irish-style garrulousness and frequent smile and laugh that verged on the incongruous when discussing serious matters of state. The younger Ryan, equipped with statistics and the earnestness of a kid in the classroom with his hand perpetually raised, seemed to do no serious harm to his cause, although often seeming frustrated and somewhat flustered by his opponent’s attacks.

At The Atlantic magazine’s blog, James Fallows said, “I expected both candidates to do well, and they did. But Paul Ryan, who was fine, did not advance his team’s prospects beyond what Mitt Romney had done last week. Whereas Joe Biden, who put on the best performance of his long career, supplied the only good news his team has had in six days (since last Friday’s jobs report). Even though, yes, he could have smiled less. Obama owes him…

“By virtue of his position and his personality, Barack Obama cannot comport himself in the next debates the way Biden did this evening. But he sure as hell should be studying the detailed defense Biden offered of the administration’s record and plans, his willingness to go right at the other side’s policies, and his overall ‘Game On!’ attitude from the first second he began to speak. Seriously, Biden himself and whoever helped prepare him for this evening should be feeling very good about what they did. (As Romney and his team did a week ago.)”

Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog, concurred. “If the biggest impact of the presidential debate (and you can make that case) was to discourage Democrats, Biden clearly provided a major tonic for the troops,” he wrote. “He was combative, confident, never let Ryan win an uncontested point, and did not forget to make simple assertions of fidelity to progressive values. The very things some pundits criticized him for — talking over Ryan, laughing and grimacing when his opponent was doing his number, etc. — were exactly what many Democrats wanted to see and hear.

“Ryan’s accomplishment was not screwing up, not sounding ‘radical’ (except for the abortion issue) and sounding superficially knowledgeable about foreign policy. He also, as I figured he would do, dragged the brief discussion of taxes and budget far enough into the weeds to become relatively inscrutable to low-information voters.”

At Salon, Joan Walsh thought Biden knocked it out of the park, although, “Biden probably smiled and laughed too much.

“He showed a lot of teeth, occasionally looking like he really wanted to bite Ryan, not merely reply to his arguments. During the opening minutes alone he interjected with ‘That was a bunch of malarkey’ and ‘Not a single thing he said is accurate’ and ‘Incredible!’ and ‘Oh God!’ If I had been in a control room talking into his ear, I’d have told him to calm down. At some point, I think Jill Biden or someone in the audience must have given him a cue to tell him to dial it back, because half way through, he did. Or else his 5-Hour Energy drink wore off in four and a half. Yet watching clips of the debate — which is what most people will see in the coming days — Biden won virtually every exchange.”

(AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

Nevertheless, Benjy Sarlin noted, “Outside the left, the media reaction was more mixed. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer considered the result a draw, while several FOX News hosts chastised Biden for appearing too aggressive or condescending in taking on Ryan. But for a Democratic pundit class on the edge of hysteria in the wake of Obama’s performance, Biden calmed nerves that the ticket had lost its fight. That will surely help tide over the Democratic base for the next few days before Obama gets a second crack at Romney on Oct. 16 in New York.”

New York Times pollster and analyst Nate Silver concluded, “My best guess: perhaps Mr. Biden can be credited with what in baseball statistics would be termed a ‘hold:’ something a bit shy of either a win or a save and which will probably seem perfunctory with the passage of time, but which might have done his team a bit of good.

“However, he won’t have relieved Mr. Obama of the burden of needing to improve his performance in next week’s presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y.”

In any case, the most successful performance of the evening may have been by moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who kept the debate moving forward, interrupting when necessary to ask the next question and move along the discussion, covering a range of topics that gave the audience greater exposure to the candidates’ differing points of view. However, many issues still remain unexamined, including immigration reform, human rights and the environment. Not a word about climate change, for example.

What questions do you think still need to be asked – and answered?

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